The Death of Beirut Stains Our Names
August 3, 2021
blog Series: 
Commemorating the Beirut Port Explosion

I don’t know where the story begins, or like everybody else, I pretend that I don’t know. The story of this city begins with the daily denial of everything that has been happening, a city floating on water before the Mediterranean sea, at risk of drowning. The smell of salt is bitter in your throat and the city’s long history is spread across a dense forest of death.

This is the land of terrible contradictions, Beirut. A dense forest of emotions carries the city with a broken cord that refuses to play solo. The city was carried by the smell of pine that concealed its identity, it no longer looks like itself. The city had entered a world of contradictions created by a political experience that produced separate contradicting pieces carrying nothing but the smell of sticks training our senses to pay attention. Language becomes narrow, words and similes that could have defined the image of the city are swallowed. Beirut has become a land of open possibilities to all forms of drowning. As if the August 4 explosion did not come and destroy buildings and neighborhoods, rather, it blew up the last of Beirut’s faces on which we looked upon to ourselves witnessing language slowly dying, falling to terrible helplessness, deeming us unable to grasp words that could rebuild the identity of this city. The lovers of Beirut’s charm have been given new reasons to remember how Beirut’s velvet roses melted in the experiment of death created by the explosion.

I can pretend, like everybody else, that I do not know so I do not have to speak and console broken consciousness in the terrible silence created by the explosion. Everybody has discovered their inability to speak in the face of what had happened. Language becomes narrow before me while the city shakes, that is what I remember.

I walk in the streets of Beirut, I feel the city shivering, clutching onto itself trying to tell us everything in one go. Beirut spoke... or tried to speak, but we did not listen very well. The city that has paved its way to a devestating explosion through small tremors, like a body squeezing out the shape of death in short flicks. We felt that. We saw how the city twisted in pain before it paved its way towards its death.

I was walking in the streets of Beirut on a normal day that did not remind me of war in Syria. The smell of death was not lingering in the air the way it did before an airstrike, I heard no planes gathering in the sky orchestrating loud screams, there was nothing intimate reminding me of collective death created by wars. The day resembled one where you could have met a fleeting love by coincidence, the day was filled with emotional content, you would not imagine that you would become breaking news. Everything was normal, born out of a mysterious sense of security that all possibilities in life are within reach and will not suddenly disappear. Beirut transformed into a narrow space that could even accommodate a sigh. Beirut shook suddenly. My life have always stopped when cities experienced trembling, trembling cities, I pass by them and live through the shaking of their soul while it expresses the size of the death it is about to live. Political regimes have always squeezed out cities. The tremor I have experienced in my life narrows and expands into Beirut. The taste of death in Beirut is different. It does not force you to be attentive like it does in Damascus during war. There, collective death affirms an open war on everybody, here, everything happens suddenly as if death is urgent and systematic, arriving in a fleeting moment of security.

I hugged my small bag in the middle of the street trying to protect my identification documents; what is death when no one can recognize you, what does death mean to me, a Palestinian-Syrian without identification documents in Beirut, I think it means almost nothing. I lived a long time without any identification papers, escaping security guards and avoiding military checkpoints and curious questions. But, facing death in Beirut, I hugged my identification card in an effort to die with a full name, not missing any letter, so I wouldn’t be placed in the ‘anonymous’ slot.

Everything happened within seconds…

The city scattered around me while I ran, almost in tears, carrying my identification card, running. I do not know where I was trying to go, to Beirut that I left only seconds ago when it was opening up all possibilities for love? I didn’t realize that the Beirut I'm thinking of had passed away. The identification card is in my hand, I hold it like a weapon protecting me from death as I taste dust in my mouth. People around me are running and taking shelter from flying glass, people without faces are running and we walk on pieces of the city that have clumped together like shattered crystal. Beirut turned into a mirror reflecting the sky, you can see the face of God as he gathers in the image of people running, not knowing where to go.

Neither did I.

I didn’t know where to go, but I was running, holding onto my full name, looking for Beirut in Beirut, while Beirut dies alone in the strongest explosion in the world…

Dust, death, and the sounds of ambulance cars. People aiding each other, carrying the pieces of names that flew here and there. Nothing is left of the city but its name in the memory of its people. Pieces of words describing the horror of what happened. I sat on the edge of the sidewalk, looking at my identification card in my hand, crying... I cried like a baby. People passed in front of me like death. My card was dirtied by dust and blood from scattered glass, but it preserved a clear name. I wept while I tried to clean my identification card from dried-up blood…


This article was translated into English by Laura Albast. 
About The Author: 

Mutasim Khalaf is a Palestinian-Syrian writer based in Lebanon.

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